Description: It began with a house and a dream, but by its end, there will be magic, murder, and the answers to questions long dead but never destroyed. The boy in his basement will see to that. CloudxSquall, AU.
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy 7 and 8 both belong to Square(-Enix), so don't look at me.
A/N: In case you have been wondering why I've been AWOL since the beginning of the year, there are many reasons including the fact that I've been looking for a "real job" and the fact that I have been trying to force myself into writing stories when I honestly don't know where the hell I'm going with them. So, I've finally given up and started something I wanted to write instead.
This story is a supernatural mystery/romance, and therefore I am once again annoyed that I can only put two genres in the summary. That aside, it's inspired at least partly by the great film Dead Again, so if you've seen that, you may notice some similarities. Hope you all enjoy it!
The house was nothing like Cloud's usual style, yet for some reason, he couldn't stop thinking about it. It was too rural with too much acreage, yet the moment he saw it listed on his agent's website, he wanted to see it. When he saw it, the flowered wallpaper and rose-colored carpets made his skin crawl, but he knew he'd put an offer in on it. It really didn't matter how many bathrooms it had or when the kitchen had been redone or how old the water heater was. He wanted that house.
"Sometimes a house speaks to you on an emotional level," his agent had said when he had talked to her about it. "It grips your heart even though you can't explain why."
"Except that Cloud doesn't have emotions," Tifa had muttered lowly to herself.
Tifa hated the house, although Cloud understood it was less because of the structure itself and more the fact that he would be moving so far away from her. They had been friends, and only friends, since middle school, yet she still believed that, if she only had patience, he would eventually come to his senses and fall madly in love with her. He didn't have the heart to tell her that it wasn't going to happen. Truthfully, he did love her, just not in the way she wanted.
Buying a house for himself was, in part, an opportunity for Cloud to distance himself from his past and his younger self. He had been out of college for a few years now, holding down a steady job and making decent money, yet he still felt as adrift now as he had as an adolescent. He needed to find a way to ground himself, needed to, as his mother would say if she were still alive, become a "responsible adult". Becoming a homeowner was, he hoped, the first step in that process.
The afternoon after being shown the house he had already begun to think of as "his", Cloud visited the real estate office to fill out the paperwork for his offer. He had planned on skipping the traditional low-ball offer and just starting with something reasonable, but when his agent told him that someone else had put in an offer on the house that morning, he immediately threw an additional $2000 on the total and waived the home inspection. The thought of someone else getting that house made his heart clench and his stomach turn for reasons he didn't understand. He didn't know why but he wanted that house, he needed that house, and there was no way in hell he was letting it get away from him.
He barely slept that night. Thankfully, the following day was Saturday, so he spent the day puttering about his apartment, pretending to be productive, and lunging at the phone every time it rang. Tifa called at one point, asking if he wanted to go out to lunch with her, and while, on hindsight, perhaps he had been a bit too harsh in telling her to leave him the hell alone, she really should have known better. He was waiting for news of his house, goddammit; he didn't have time to talk to her.
When the call finally came, Cloud could tell from his agent's tone of voice that the news was good even before she happily told him his offer had been accepted. Relief washed through him, pulling the strength from his legs and forcing him to sit down while they discussed the next step. By the time he hung up, Cloud felt exhausted and completely drained. He went to bed early that night and slept straight through until morning.
The next few months passed far too slowly for Cloud's liking, but finally the awaited day for settlement arrived. He showed up at the real estate office with a cashier's check made out for a ludicrous amount of money and an enormous stack of paperwork from the bank. He met the previous owners of his house - an elderly couple off to Florida for their retirement - signed and initialed dozens of documents without really reading them, and patiently endured his agent's attempts to serve him refreshments in spite of his repeated refusals. It was a process undoubtedly designed to slowly suck the life out of him, but it was all worth it the moment he held those keys in his hand.
"Congratulations," his agent said as she walked him to the door.
He just smiled at her.
Thirty minutes later, Cloud stood astride his motorcycle at the bottom of his driveway and gazed up the hill at his house. A little smile flickered over his face as he realized what he must look like to his new neighbors. Considering his age, the black leather jacket, the sunglasses, and the bike, they were probably bemoaning the end of their peace and quiet and the ruination of the entire neighborhood. They'd find out soon enough that he wasn't the type to have parties all night long with lots of loud music and alcohol. In fact, he'd probably be the one with the complaints; one of his neighbors was a horse farmer.
Tired of looking at just the outside, Cloud disengaged the kickstand of his bike and drove up the long driveway to the garage. A few moments later, he had opened the front door and was standing inside his empty front hallway. Just like the first time he had entered the house, something inside his chest tightened just slightly. It wasn't a feeling of being home as much as a feeling of being where he needed to be, although there was a restless edge to it as well, a sense that he needed to do something. He had thought that by owning the house the emotion might settle or even go away, but it hadn't. If anything, it had gotten a bit stronger.
Shaking off the feeling for now, Cloud decided that the first thing he needed to do was walk through the house and figure out where to put his stuff. He started with the second floor, choosing one of the smaller bedrooms for himself, at least until he could get that horrendous wallpaper off the walls of the master bedroom. The third bedroom would have to be similarly redecorated, but then it could be a study or some other type of workroom. Downstairs, he resolved to redo the rec room immediately if not sooner. He would store his furniture in the dining room until that was done because, truthfully, what was he going to do with a dining room? As for the kitchen, it was decently decorated although a bit too pastel for his tastes. Still, considering the amount of work he was going to have to do to remove the general fluffiness of the previous owners, it was nice to have one room he could just move into. That just left the basement to look over. His mind still thinking about paint and new carpeting, Cloud turned to go downstairs and stepped forward.
He stopped abruptly when he walked into a wall.
Blue eyes blinking, he regarded the blank space in front of him for several seconds. He had thought that that was where the door to the basement was. In fact, he had been sure of it; he had turned purely on instinct. The door had to be there. Yet there was no door. Confused, Cloud looked around and quickly spotted a door a few feet away. That's right, that was the door to the basement. So why had he been so sure it was here instead? For a moment, Cloud just stood there, shifting his gaze between where the door was and where it was supposed to be; then, he shrugged and walked over to the real door instead.
That night, he went back to his apartment and finished up the packing he had started weeks ago. The following morning, Barrett showed up with his truck, Tifa showed up with coffee, Aerith showed up with donuts and muffins, and Yuffie showed up with an appetite.
"No more donuts until you do some work," Cloud told her once she had eaten four of them. Yuffie whined of course, but when Tifa entered the argument on his side, she shut up and started carrying boxes.
It took them most of the day and Cloud ended up buying both lunch and dinner for all of them, but by the time all his friends headed home, utterly exhausted and desperate for showers, everything Cloud owned rested safely beneath his new roof. The lease on his apartment wouldn't run out until the end of the month, but he didn't want to be there. He wanted to be here in spite of the longer commute to work and the horrible décor. And so that night, after he had showered and dried off, Cloud collapsed onto his bed, tired, sore, surrounded by boxes, and extremely happy.
When he slept, he dreamed. He was running. From nowhere, towards nowhere, but running, always running. And as he ran, he searched. Where was he? He had to find him. His heart pounded and his breath rasped in his lungs, but he couldn't stop. He had to find him before it was too late. Desperation coursed through him and a little bit of anger as well. Anger at himself for letting him go, anger at him for going, anger at his helplessness, his fear. It pushed him forward, sustained him as he ran and ran.
And then he was no longer running but standing before a closed door, staring at its painted surface. Somehow he knew that the one for whom he searched was behind that door. Yet he couldn't get his body to move. Again and again, he willed his body to step forward, to grasp that knob and turn it, but he remained frozen in place, simply looking at it. In time, the door and the dream began to fade until there was only a gray mist, then nothing, and Cloud woke up, feeling disappointed and alone.
For the next two weeks, Cloud went to work, unpacked boxes, tore down wallpaper, hung out with friends when he felt like it, and generally went about his life in a normal fashion. At night he dreamed. Every night it was the same: the running, the searching, the door, and finally the sadness and the pain. He told Barrett about it, but the man had been no help.
"Yer workin' too hard," he had said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Take a vacation."
He didn't tell Tifa or Aerith about it. While the women would undoubtedly have had better advice, they would also worry, and Cloud didn't want to do that to them. The dream wasn't horrible or ruining his sleep. It was just strange how it was exactly the same, night after night. The tight feeling in his chest hadn't lessened either, although Cloud attributed it to the large amount of redecorating he had to do. The house just wouldn't be his until there wasn't a single flower left on the walls.
On the third Saturday after moving into his new house, Cloud decided that it was time to check out the nearby town. Ten minutes or so later, he was cruising down the main street, checking out the storefronts and shopping areas. While he had only had one glance, and that at 35 mph, it seemed that the town was divided into two parts: a more traditional, "quaint" area with family-owned stores and local businesses, and a corporate explosion with McDonalds, Starbucks, 7-Eleven, etc. He knew that eventually he would hang out in the home-grown area more, but for now, he wanted a coffee and something to eat, preferably something that was horrifically bad for you. And he was already in the plastic part of town.
When he rolled into the Starbucks' parking lot, engine growling, a knot of teenagers all looked up at him with awe in their faces. He ignored them and the scowling looks of a couple of middle-aged women nearby, and instead strolled into the store, removing his sunglasses as he did so. A few people stared at him inside as well, but most stayed glued to their laptops and paperbacks or ignored him in favor of their own important and enlightening conversations. After a brief debate, Cloud chose a blueberry scone that looked like it had an entire day's worth of calories all by itself and ordered a black coffee to go with it. The barista took his money with a plastered-on smile, handed him his pastry, and went to pour his coffee.
Cloud turned to find a dark-haired girl smiling up at him from where she leaned against the counter, a cup of something full of cream and half-drunk in her hands.
"Haven't seen you here before, and I come here every weekend," she said. "You new around here?"
Cloud noted with internal amusement that she looked a bit like Tifa, but her hair wasn't as long and her chest definitely wasn't as impressive. "Just moved in," he answered her shortly, turning away. "Couple of weeks ago."
"Oh, I see." He could tell by her voice that she was trying her best to flirt with him. Too bad for her that kind of thing didn't work on him. If it had, he would have been married to Tifa years ago. "Welcome to the neighborhood."
His barista had gotten waylaid by another one, obviously a trainee, and had moved off to help make some complicated drink with shots and chocolate shavings. Cloud frowned. He could see his plain coffee just there over on the other counter. If someone would just give it to him, he could leave.
"I'm Rinoa. Rinoa Heartilly." Her hand was out, but he ignored it. Unfortunately, she didn't take offense, and after a moment of silence, she put her hands on her hips and laughed lightly. "When someone offers you their name, it's customary to give yours, you know."
He sighed internally. Why was this type of girl always attracted to him? "Cloud Strife."
A beat passed where the girl was quiet and Cloud stared at his coffee, willing it to float over to him. Then, Rinoa cried, "You're Cloud Strife? You're the asshole who took my house?"
Surprised, Cloud turned and finally gave her his full attention. Her face held an expression identical to his own, all shock and astonishment. "Wait," he said, "what do you mean your house? Are you talking about - ?"
"Yes," she interrupted him with a slight frown. "I've wanted that house for years, you know. I was so happy when it went on the market. I'd saved up a good amount for a down-payment and gotten an agreement from the bank, and I thought that I'd finally get it. And then you," she leaned forward a bit, her frown morphing into a pout, "had to come in and snatch it away from me." A small 'humph' noise escaped her as she leaned back again and took a sip of her drink. "Do you have any idea how much I hated you?" she asked over the rim of her cup.
"Sorry," he replied, and in some degree, he was. He knew how upset he would have been if he hadn't gotten the house.
Rinoa humphed again, but a little smile was creeping into her lips. "If I hadn't already gotten a drink, I'd make you buy me one," she mused. Said drink lowered from her face, and Cloud could easily see the twinkle in her eyes. "Tell you what, you come in next Saturday and buy me a drink. We'll talk, get to know each other, and then maybe I'll forgive you. What do you say?"
He wanted to say that he wasn't interested and that she was wasting her time, but he did feel bad about taking what had obviously been a dream away from her. So, he agreed, and Rinoa smiled and called it a date before she wandered away. When the barista appeared with Cloud's coffee, apologizing for the delay, he took it and his scone to a window seat where he could watch his bike and glare at any salivating teen who got too close. He didn't think twice about the promise he had made or the woman to whom he had made it.
That night, the dream was different. It started with him running, as usual, but when the door appeared, he could tell something was off. His skin prickled as if someone was watching him, and he could hear his heart beating in his ears. This time, he didn't even try to reach for the door. He just stood and stared at it, more petrified than he had ever been.
'Well, go on.'
The voice startled him terribly, nearly drawing a shout from him as he twirled around to face the speaker. All at once, he knew where he was. This was his kitchen, his new kitchen in his new house in which he had been living for the past three weeks. No, no, it was her kitchen. And there she was, standing at the stove with her back to him, stirring something slowly in a saucepan. She was tall and slender, with dark, dark hair that fell all the way to her lower back. He knew she was beautiful, but she didn't turn towards him. He doubted he would be able to see her face if she did.
'What are you waiting for?'
Her voice, soft and seductive, spurred him into action. Turning back to the door, he willed his foot to move forward. To his surprise, it obeyed, and soon he was grasping the doorknob, beginning to turn it. Something in the back of his mind was screaming at him, telling him to get out of there, telling him to run, but he was too overjoyed to listen to it. He was behind that door. He knew he was. If he could just get to him, everything would be all right. The knob turned, the lock clicked, and he threw open the door.
Cloud woke up screaming. Desperately he grasped first at his heart, trying to calm it, then at his mouth, willing himself not to be sick. The last thing he remembered before waking was pain. Pain and bone-deep fear. It had been so strong that he could still feel the echoes of it thrumming through his body. The sheets, he noticed once he had calmed down enough, were soaked in sweat, and he had not only torn out the top sheet but also dislodged a corner of the fitted sheet with his thrashing. His dream, which he had been having every night since moving in, had officially become a nightmare.
"Shit," he muttered and rolled out of bed.
After washing his face and running damp fingers through his hair, Cloud decided that he needed a drink to settle himself down before trying to go back to sleep. He had made it the whole way downstairs and had pulled a glass out of the cabinet before his brain woke up enough to realize where he was. This kitchen had been in his nightmare. If he took one, maybe two, steps to the right, he would be standing where the mysterious woman had been, right in front of the stove. And as for the door … Cloud turned to the correct place and found himself staring at a blank wall, the same wall he had nearly walked into on the day he had bought the house.
Drink forgotten, Cloud moved to the small kitchen table he had bought from IKEA, and sat in the chair that faced the wall. He had been so certain on that first day that there was a door there, and since then, even though he knew the door to the basement was in a different place, he had accidentally gone to that wall at least once every couple of days, expecting to find something that wasn't there. Now his mind had placed the door in his dreams in that spot as well. It was driving him crazy, if he wasn't half-way there already.
Slowly, Cloud rose and walked to the wall. He gently ran his hands up and down the surface, feeling for irregularities or cracks, but he found nothing. The wall appeared completely solid and level. As far as he could tell, there was no secret passageway and nothing was hiding underneath the plaster. It was a perfectly normal, perfectly ordinary wall. So why did both his mind and his gut tell him there was a door there? Frustrated, Cloud sighed and, eyes closed, rested his forehead against the surface. When he opened his eyes again, he noticed he was looking down at the area of the wall where the doorknob would have been if there were a door. He had had that dream so much, seen that door so many times, that he knew exactly where the knob would be, how far away from the wall in both directions. Smirking to himself at just how crazy he was being, he lifted a hand and brought it down to grasp at the air as if he was going to turn it.
Cloud froze, eyes going wide. His hand had just hit something solid. Solid and cold, like metal. Breath beginning to shudder, he flexed his fingers a bit to make sure it was really there. The firmness of the invisible object did not change. Fear began to rise within him, but Cloud closed his eyes and fought it back down. He wanted to take his hand away to see if it would happen a second time, but he was also afraid that if he let go, he'd never find it again. So he held on, fighting the disbelief and the panic until he could breathe without panting, until his heart no longer felt like it was going to beat its way up his throat. And then, praying to God that he wasn't going insane, he turned it.
Something clicked, and like a mirage shimmering into existence, the door appeared. It was exactly how it had been in his dreams, down to the chipping paint along one side of the frame. Cloud swallowed hard when he saw it. It had to be another dream - things like this just didn't happen in real life - but somehow he knew that it wasn't. This was real; the door was real. At the moment, he had only opened it a slight crack, but Cloud knew he couldn't stop there. As much as he didn't really want to, he knew he had to open it and see what was on the other side. Somehow he knew that the nightmare would just keep coming back until he did. And so, after a moment to steady himself and his emotions, Cloud breathed in slowly, breathed out in the same way, and then pushed the door wide.
Based on the amount of fear and pain he had felt in his most-recent dream, he half expected for something large and ugly with lots of teeth and tentacles to come jumping out. In reality, it was only a stairway leading down. Cloud stood at the top for a minute, gazing down into the darkness, then left to find a flashlight. When he came back several minutes later, he took a long moment to shine the beam down the stairs and just observe. Basement by the look of it. The other half of his half-basement that his agent had told him was so small because of draining issues. Stone walls flanked both sides of the stairs, limiting his ability to see what was down there, so, reluctantly, Cloud began to descend, keeping alert for any sounds or smells that would notify him of danger as he did so.
When he rounded the corner at the bottom of the stairs, he found himself in what appeared to be a study. There was a desk, several bookshelves filled with books, and a few chairs scattered about. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary or worth Cloud's immediate investigation, and after a few minutes of shining the flashlight around, he considered going back to bed. Then, he noticed the wall at the other end of the room. It was a simple thing, made of plywood, meant to be a divider of space and not much else. What caught Cloud's attention, however, was the fact that he could just barely see a faint light coming from beneath the simple plywood door.
As he walked toward it, his sensible side told him to go back upstairs and wait until morning to do this. It was late, he was tired, and he wasn't equipped physically or mentally to handle any more surprises tonight. The tight feeling in his chest, however, urged him forward until he was gripping a knob for the second time in ten minutes. This time, he didn't need a preparatory breath, but opened the door easily and in one fluid motion. Immediately, his flashlight slipped from his other hand and clattered to the stone floor where it clicked off.
"Oh my God," Cloud breathed.
The room was unadorned, the floor and walls simple concrete. There was no furniture of any kind. In fact, the only things in the room were the intricate symbol painted on the floor, the four burning candles that sat at various points along the symbol, and the young man who floated in a column of light-blue light in the very center, some two feet off the ground.
"Oh my God," Cloud said again as he carefully made his way into the room. Again, his brain rebelled and declared that this couldn't be happening, but at the moment he was too fixated on the young man to care. He looked to be in his late teens, maybe six or seven years younger than Cloud, and he was dressed in a simple white T-shirt and jeans with no shoes. There was a necklace around his neck, a silver chain with a lion's head pendant, but he appeared to have no other jewelry. His arms were held at 45 degree angles from his body, and Cloud could see that his eyes were closed beneath overly long brown bangs.
Slowly, Cloud walked once around the symbol on the floor, then a second time, this time looking at the markings instead of at the boy in the pillar of light. They looked like something one would see in a book about black magic or some other such rubbish. Each of the candles sat in a little circle drawn onto the ground within the symbol, and they burned merrily away without seeming to devour any wick or melt any wax. The blue light touched down in the middle of the symbol, but Cloud could see four faint blue lines radiating out to the four candles as if they were what was creating the column.
Finished with his examination, Cloud sat down next to a candle and gazed up at the teenager once more. He had to get the kid out of there. He had no idea what was going on, but that didn't matter right now. All his anxiety and confusion had vanished in the face of a living person down here. Because the kid was breathing, his chest rising and falling. Everything else could be figured out later. Right now, he needed to focus on getting the kid out. The problem was how. The light didn't look electrical, but Cloud wasn't about to put his hand in it and find out. Running his eyes over the whole set-up again produced the idea that perhaps blowing out the candles would cause the light to go away. Unfortunately, blowing on them had no effect and once again Cloud didn't want to run the risk of putting them out with his fingers or dousing them with water.
That left moving them or otherwise messing up the symbol on the floor. Carefully, Cloud examined the nearest candle and, finding it to be pretty much normal-looking, reached out a hand to move it out of its little circle. It wouldn't budge. Maybe it was glued to the floor, maybe whatever weirdness had produced all this had melded it to the stone, he didn't know, but for whatever reason, it wasn't moving. Seriously frustrated by now, Cloud wrapped his other hand around the little stick of wax and yanked. After pulling one way for a minute or two, he pulled the other way, thinking that maybe it would be weaker on that side. Eventually, he shifted his position so he could dig his heels into the floor.
The second it started to slide, Cloud felt his heart jump. He threw himself back into the fight with renewed energy and confidence. His muscles strained, screaming at him for relief, but he ignored them and pressed on. Every millimeter of movement took an eternity, but eventually he could see the progress he was making. Every so often, he would glance up at the boy in the pillar to remind himself why he was presently engaged in a life-or-death struggle with a candle, and each time he did, he seemed to get another burst of strength from some reserve he didn't know he had. Finally, after what seemed like hours, the last little bit of wax slid free of the painted circle, and immediately, the blue light that led from it to the center faded away.
In the next second, the pillar shook, crackled like static, and then began to dissolve. When the last of it faded away, Cloud was there to catch the young man as he fell forward. Guided only by three flecks of candlelight that were quickly sputtering out, Cloud carried the boy out of the back room and completely out of the basement, not stopping until he had kicked the phantom door shut and laid his burden gently on the couch that currently sat in his not-dining-room.
"Hey," he murmured, once he had checked the boy for injuries. "Hey, kid. Can you hear me?"
Slowly, the other's eyelids rose, revealing blank gray eyes that stared straight up without seeing.
"Kid," Cloud tried again after a moment of silence. "Are you all right? Can you talk to me?"
The eyes shifted, and Cloud watched as they focused on his face. In the next moment, however, they rolled backwards and the lids closed once more as the boy fell into a faint.
"It's okay," Cloud told him, gripping his shoulder lightly. "You're going to be okay." He paused for a moment at the teenager's side, just to convince himself one more time that the other was real. Then, he was on his feet and headed towards the phone to call for an ambulance, not realizing that the tightness in his chest had completely disappeared.